President Donald Trump is described by many different names, depending on how people feel towards him, but he’s nothing if not a wildcard. His December 6 official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital attests to his rash nature. Not only did his declaration mark a sharp departure from over two decades of American foreign policy, it also deviates from the overwhelming majority of the international community’s official positions on the controversial Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Prudent diplomacy is recommended in today’s complex world, and it is especially necessary in the Middle East given high religious tensions and routine violence. It’s been suggested that President Trump could learn some pearls of wisdom from someone like Daniel Taub, Israel’s ambassador to Britain and peace negotiator. Taub’s goal to find the balance between prudence and practicality in diplomacy may be a helpful guide to all parties involved in the complex issue.
So, what did the president really do when he boldly “recognized” Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, pledging to move the American embassy there? In the beginning of his official statement recognizing Jerusalem, President Trump referenced that in 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act. The law names Jerusalem as the capital city of the state of Israel and provides the United States with a six month deadline to relocate the embassy there from Tel Aviv unless a suspension is necessary in the interests of the United States’ national security. Every six months since 1995, presidents have waived the law out of concern for the unrest in the region and the controversial question of Jerusalem itself. Israel has claimed the city as its capital since ancient times, but the Palestinians have a hold on East Jerusalem and hope to gain it as their capital in future peace negotiations. The United Nations has long maintained that Jerusalem should be a “final status” issue, decided through lasting and peaceful negotiations between the two sides involved in the conflict.
Daniel Taub grants that difficult final status issues must be dealt with using the proper procedure between the legitimate parties, and that nothing can be done quickly and easily. However, there are times when smaller practical decisions must be made. In these cases, each side must give a little to take a little. For example: When Palestinian elections were to be held, the question of where Palestinians living in Jerusalem were to vote was a contentious issue. Even simple logistics, such as voting stations inside or outside Jerusalem, are heavily laden with symbolism and precedent. The decision was made to place polling stations on a strip of land recognized by Palestinians to be part of Jerusalem while Israel denied its inclusion in the city. Polling stations were also set up in postal offices for special needs citizens and, depending on one’s perspective, these stations could be considered within Jerusalem or an absentee ballot. In these issues, Taub notes, no side is completely happy with the outcome, but both sides concede slightly so that they both gain. This is the art of prudence in diplomacy seeking to acquire measurable, practical outcomes. The worrisome factor in President Trump’s decision is that Israel gains without concession, and the Palestinians merely received lukewarm rhetoric, claiming the United States supports a peaceful two state resolution.
President Trump provided several reasons for why the United States would recognize Jerusalem. He states that he is simply acknowledging reality due to some facts rooted in common sense: Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel since ancient times, including the past 70 years since the new state of Israel was established. The city is the location of the Prime Minister’s office, the President himself, Israel’s parliament, the Supreme Court, and other government agencies. It is the meeting place for official head of state visits. It is also a location of reverence for three major world religions and the seat of strong democratic government in a region of turbulence. President Trump made a point to reaffirm the United States’ strong commitment to securing lasting peace in the region, and he declared that he was taking no position on the final status negotiations. Above all, he prioritized moderation, tolerance, a strong commitment to peace, and a win-win deal for both sides.
So, what does this all mean? When President Trump moved to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he departed from the UN’s official neutral position and tipped the scales in favor of Israel in the conflict. The world held its breath and waited for the fallout. Very little seemed to change on the surface. Israelis celebrated and Palestinians protested. Radical groups such as Hamas called for violent uprisings, but the area remained relatively calm, all things considered. There was not an international wave of Jerusalem recognition following the president’s move either, and the position was actually condemned by the vast majority of the UN near the end of December. Arab states particularly were angered by Trump’s decision, and many neutral states were concerned that Trump had transported the peace talks “decades backwards” by appearing to support one side over the other. President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Trump’s position, then declared that the United States had jeopardized its role as a peace moderator in the conflict. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, was grateful for Trump’s recognition, calling it historic, and declared Trump a “great friend” of Israel.
Perhaps the world can take a breath and view President Trump’s position with the cautious optimism Daniel Taub brings to the negotiating table. Two of Trump’s main promises which succeeded in his election were to prioritize the United States’ interests over international interests, and to depart from unsuccessful ways of doing things in regard to those interests. With peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine making little headway over the past twenty years since presidents began waiving the Jerusalem Embassy Act, Trump’s decision to depart from the “failed assumptions and failed strategies of the past” and acknowledge Jerusalem may result in a renewed round of peace talks. In any case, Donald Trump has gained the support of the powerful Israeli diaspora at home, garnered the sympathies of many in the religious right, and found a powerful ally in Netanyahu. In exchange, he has earned criticism from many in the international community, specifically from Muslim-majority countries. Israel’s stabilizing democratic force in the Middle East may serve the United States’ interests. It seems Trump has found a win-win between the United States and Israel. If Trump is truly committed to securing a peaceful resolution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, hopefully he will find a way to benefit the Palestinians as well. Taub’s best negotiation advice is to “be an active listener. As diplomats, we are trained in how to present our case well, but much less in how to actively engage and hear our counterparts. Not only is it a critical learning experience, but particularly on contentious issues it’s often hard to get your point into someone else’s head until they’ve got their own ideas out.” President Trump may have simply gotten his own ideas out and is now willing to listen to someone else’s ideas in the effort to find a resolution.